Top News

In the fight to ban books at St. Tammany, both sides bombard the library with requests for public records

The St Tammany Parish Library system had never received a public record when the first arrived last November. It sought any emails or texts sent by Director Kelly LaRocca to a list of people, including officials, media and well-wishers, who have opposed the removal of books.

This first public record request was submitted by Connie Phillips, a Mandeville woman who is one of the leading forces to remove material from libraries that she and some others say is pornographic and easily accessible to children.

Since then, the library has received 16 additional requests for public records. They were submitted by media outlets including The Times-Picayune, members of the St. Tammany Library Alliance, which has formed to oppose censorship efforts, and Phillips. She has submitted four, some on her own behalf and others for the St. Tammany Library Accountability Project and the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany Group.

Duel Recording Requests

The requests for dueling records represent another front in the culture war being waged in St. Tammany and some other parts of Louisiana over what is available in public libraries. In the community of St. Tammany, the problem first surfaced in June when the Mandeville branch put up several Pride Month displays.

Since then, the community library system has received 188 formal complaints about 151 books, 150 of which were filed by Phillips. Library Board of Control meetings have evolved from quiet affairs to crowded, sometimes raucous gatherings, with some onlookers accusing the library of caring for children and others insisting constitutional rights are under threat.

This week, LaRocca said the library system hired an additional clerk to help with requests. The requests are also being reviewed by the Legal Department of St. Tammany Township to ensure the library is responsive, LaRocca said.

Library patrons concerned about censorship submitted seven of the requests, most of which seek information about contested books and user demographics. Lisa Rustemeyer, who filed two motions, said she’s looking for patterns of who is filing complaints and how long the books have been in the library without sparking controversy.

Searching for keywords

Phillips’ original request was aimed at communications between LaRocca and 41 people, and also requested text messages or emails from LaRocca containing multiple terms, including pride, pride display, opposition, strategy, compromise, pornography, and pedophilia.

It also searched for texts and emails mentioning specific names, including those of Phillips and other library critics, and Emily Drabinski, president of the American Library Association, an organization Phillips last addressed in a lengthy presentation at a meeting the St. Tammany Republic Party had blown up year.

Phillips recently requested 14 articles, including all records of new book purchases over the past two years and written guidelines on procedures for purchasing LGBTQIA books, which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual.

Such a policy doesn’t exist, LaRocca said, so she provided the library’s collection development policy instead.

LGBTQ training in question

Phillis also requested all LGBTQIA employee training materials and all communications between LaRocca offices with the keywords LGBTQIA.

The library system has no such training, LaRocca said, although there is a form employees can fill out to seek outside training.

“If someone went to a conference and that was discussed, I wouldn’t know,” she said, adding that she asks staff if this has happened at conferences and if they have downloaded any LGBTQIA materials.

Phillips said their intention in submitting public record requests was to verify that the library had a pro-LGBTQ agenda.

“I don’t like the fact that the library has an agenda, and it’s not a secret agenda… I want to see if it’s written,” Phillips said.

She also cited material from the American Library Association that suggests redefining sexual material in terms of diversity and inclusion.

“The bottom line for me is that I don’t care what adults read, I care what’s in the children’s section,” Philips said, adding that neither gay nor straight sex belongs in front of children.

Who buys the books?

LaRocca said the public record requests also focused on who is acquiring material for the library. The library uses publisher catalogs, bestseller lists and award-winning book lists, but 36 to 37 percent of new titles are purchased because library users have asked for them, she said.

“I kept getting asked who buys the books,” LaRocca said. “What they want are people’s names. They have my name and the names of my board members and they are using them freely.”

Phillips says only “Sex, A Book for Teens” was removed entirely following a complaint and an internal review by the library. The reason given was that the book was outdated, she said, not its explicit content.

“We will never back down because of that statement,” she said. “There are no compromises with them … the person buying books is the judge and jury.”

The library system now has an audiobook of the updated version, she said.